There are three main types of production flows: continuous flow, batch production, and job production. Continuous flow is utilized to efficiently produce high volumes of identical units like gasoline and cars. Job production is used to create a single unique product every time with an example being a house or an aircraft carrier. Batch production breaks up the total volume into distinct lots that are used to manufacture multiple products. After each batch of products are completed, production stops, and the next batch is setup. The main advantages of batch production systems are lower inventory levels, lower risk in the new product development process, and the ability to have more flexibility in the production system.
Small batch production is a version of batch production whereby the lots sizes are smaller. Small batch production is typically used with new products, products that require a high degree of flexibility and responsiveness, or products with customized features. 3D printing offers several qualities that make it attractive for small batch production including 3D printing’s ability to produce low volumes economically and produce customized products. 3D printing does not require any tooling and setup time is minimal as the machinery does not need to be modified, a new digital file must simply be sent to the printer.
Using Small Batch Production As Your Production System
Small batches require less raw material, work in process and finished good inventory, enabling a leaner production system. Less inventory means more cash on hand that can be invested in other areas of the business. There is also a reduction of risk as inventory is often lost, broken or stolen so less inventory on-hand will ultimately lead to less inventory write-offs.
New product development is a risky process as it requires a lot of up-front investment with no guarantees that customers will buy the products. Much of the cost in the new product development process is due to buying inventory to sell to customers. Small batch production with 3D printing enables the cost-efficient supply of products that can be tested with the market. Based on the market feedback, more resources can be devoted to launching the product once it is determined that there is enough demand from consumers. With fabrication methods other than 3D printing, producing in low volume would not be economical as there would not be enough volume to amortize the fixed costs of setup and tooling. 3D printing provides the opportunity to run a leaner production system with less inventory and less risk.
Small batch production also offers a high degree of flexibility and responsiveness. If consumer preferences change, a small batch production system can respond rapidly and supply new products faster with less obsolete inventory. This is advantageous in industries where demand is either unknown or consumer tastes change rapidly.
Bridge production is used when scaling production supply volumes to meet customer demand. At high volumes, traditional manufacturing methods such as injection molding become more cost-effective than 3D printing, however, it may still be useful to use 3D printing for small batch production early on when consumer demand is still being identified. Once the decision is made to switch from small batch manufacturing to mass production, 3D printing can be used as bridge production to supply products while the mass production system is being setup to produce the higher volumes. This way, companies can still sell products while they are setting up and working out the issues in the mass production system.
Casted parts require a pattern that is used to make the ceramic mold that the metal is then poured into. To make the original pattern a mold must be machined. This adds time and cost to the process and requires that high volumes be produced to achieve cost efficiencies. In contrast, a 3D printed pattern can be produced quickly and cheaply without the use of a mold. This can enable the rapid manufacturing of casted parts that can utilize many of the advantages of 3D printing including high geometric complexity and customized product features.
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